Food styling is one of those jobs that sounds like a dream. And after sustaining a strain injury, Katie Christ made that dream come true in a serious way. Christ has been the culinary producer on Top Chef and worked for magazines like Bon Appetit and Cooking Light and companies like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. She also competed in the Food Network Challenge's first-ever competition for food stylists and won. Recently, we sat down with her to pick her brain about the weirdest parts of the job, working with Tori Spelling, and how to make your breakfast foods the most fave-worthy they can be.
Extra Crispy: How did you get into food styling?
Katie Christ: Quite literally, by accident. I developed a repetitive strain injury while doing marketing work at a tech company. When I was told by numerous medical specialists that I would need to close the door on any career that involved computers, I had to find something that would accommodate my injury. A couple of years prior, I’d apprenticed on weekends and holidays at Elizabeth Falkner’s patisserie in San Francisco, Citizen Cake, and got to work on quite a few special projects with her. I met with Elizabeth over dinner to talk about options in the food world and thought food styling would be a great fit. She called a food photographer friend to ask if I might assist on a shoot sometime. I knew the first day I assisted that food styling was what I wanted to pursue.
What’s the most surprising thing to you about your job?
Every single day is different and presents its own unique challenges. I love it! It’s never dull.
Do you have a favorite story from a shoot?
There have been so many crazy situations over the years. One of the most wacky and funny shoots that comes to mind was Tori Spelling’s entertaining book. I honestly didn’t know what to expect and absolutely loved working with Tori. She is super creative, extremely hard working, funny, fun-loving, and was so great with the entire crew. It was a crazy shoot on so many levels. We were creating food concepts on the fly for big parties, there were lots of locations with animals, kids, and really hot weather. Oh, and to add another layer to our already chaotic book shoot, her reality TV show crew would show up on random days to film the whole book production.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve done to get a shot?
I once had a client once ask to get rid of the little hairs on a raspberry because they didn’t like the way it looked in its natural state. The image was going to be quite large and I knew that it wouldn’t look good to pluck them, but I did. As anticipated, it looked worse. Sometimes people need to see things before they are willing to accept the inevitable and move on to another solution. When the next suggestion was to use a razor, all I could do was laugh.
Do you have a favorite kind of food to shoot? What is it? What about your least favorite?
I honestly don’t know that I have a favorite. Pastry is always beautiful and pancake stacks are fun to engineer to create just where you want to see drips cascade. My least favorite is easy— chocolate and ice cream on really hot days.
For any novice food photographers out there, what are the most important things to remember?
If we’re talking camera-phone pics, I’d say the number-one thing is turn to turn off your flash. Number two would be to shoot from directly overhead. It’s hard to go wrong with the composition from that perspective. And third would be “Less is more.” I would encourage folks to just focus on the thing they really want to capture. It can be nice to get a hint of utensil or glass but you don’t need to get the whole table scene in the shot.
We obviously love breakfast food at Extra Crispy, but it isn’t always the most photogenic thing to shoot. What are the tricks for making less-than-appetizing foods—like oatmeal, scrambled eggs, and biscuits-and-gravy—look delicious?
Well, I personally love breakfast, which is funny because as a kid, I rarely ate it. Not that my mom didn’t try. I just wasn’t ready to eat until lunchtime. I think all those things you mentioned can be made to look delicious. Biscuits and gravy is probably the most challenging. The biscuit is the thing to focus on since the gravy is usually not so pretty. I like to take the biscuit top and lean it on the bottom half that’s covered with gravy. That way you cover up some of the not-so-lovely gravy and instead focus on the nice golden biscuit top. Oatmeal can always benefit from a lot of help in the prop department—like a colorful bowl and placemat or napkin. And then garnishing it with beautiful fruit or berries and nuts also helps. Sprinkling brown sugar or drizzling honey on top is also a nice touch. The key to fluffy scrambled eggs is patience. I use really low heat, a good quality pan, and a heat-resistant rubber spatula. It can take 10 minutes or more to get really beautiful, fluffy scrambled eggs, but it's worth the wait.